26 April 2011

Paranoid Style in Climate Politics

A colleague reminds me of this 1964 essay in Harper's by historian Richard Hofstadter, which I recall having encountered in grad school.  The essay was recently invoked by The Weekly Standard and according to Wikipedia, is frequently used in contemporary debates.  Perhaps too frequently. 

Even so, this excerpt reminded me of a style of argumentation that has become disturbingly prominent in contemporary climate debates:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds . . .
The essay was originally written in reference to the American far-right, but obviously has more general applicability.


  1. some questions for you Roger.

    1. Which of the SRES scenarios do you this is the most plausible at this point? Is A1F1 unrealistic at this point?

    2. Would you agree that the preponderance of evidence on future climate related impacts suggests that the world will be worse off from climate change than it would have been if more aggressive climate mitigation policies had been pursued?

    3. what is the market capitalization of primary fossil energy producers (oil, coal, natural gas) and users (e.g. steel, utilities)? Do you think it would be fair to say that the collective wealth of these entities far surpasses all but the richest nations on the planet?

    4. In light of #3, do you think that it's fair to say that many opponents of climate policies effectively have 'unlimited funds'?

  2. -1-Marlowe Johnson

    Fun, I'll play along ;-)

    1. Don't know, I'm not in the prediction business, except for soccer.

    2. See #1, also, there is in this instance little point in arguing about counterfactuals, sorry.

    3. Who do you think owns that market cap? Who do you think benefits from the uses of fossil fueled products? I'll start a list: me, you ....

    4. Huh?

    Not to be too smart aleck (but just a little;-) you can see that I don't think that you've found a very useful line of questions here.

  3. Riddle me this: if the fossil fuel barons are all powerful, why is it that anti-cap-and-trade Democrats get elected in West Virginia, yet pro-cap-and-trade Republicans are elected in Maine?

    Your choices:

    (a) It's very expensive to buy an election in Maine, and much cheaper in West Virginia.

    (b) Let's see, what is it they mine in WV? Could it be people are voting their own interests?

    (c) Subtle, aren't they?

  4. All SRES scenarios suffer from overestimation of future population. UN projections have been consistently declining from those available in the 1990s (used in the SRES) up to the latest (2008) revision. Even these projections are still overstating future demographic growth, since they foresee fertility converging to 1.85 children per woman in all countries, and stabilizing at that value; all evidence indicates that fertility falls with the rise in per capita income, reaching minimum values of about 1.2-1.5 children, before rebounding slowly in the handful of countries at very high levels of income and human development.
    The 2008 UN projections, with stabilization of fertility at 1.85 children per woman, implies that world population would reach a maximum (about 9 bn) somewhere after mid century, and start declining in absolute terms afterwards. This is the Medium Variant. The Low Variant (where fertility stabilizes at 1.35 children) is more realistic. The High Variant (where fertility RISES and stabilizes at 2.35) is not worth considering, for going against the trends and mainly because it is incompatible with the growth in income required to produce the foreseen GHG emissions.
    Besides population, scenarios in the 2 group (A2 and B2) imply a fragmented world with low growth in per capita income and no convergence, which is also against the rapid integration of the world economy and the rapid growth of the periphery (especially in Asia but actually nearly everywhere). In the family 1 scenarios, A1F1 implies an intensification of fossil fuel energy sources (i.e. an increase in the GHG intensity of GDP), which is also against known trends towards (slight) decarbonization. This leaves the marker scenarios A1B and B1 as the only credible prospects, subject to the above demographic considerations.
    Of course, scenarios are not predictions but examples of possible futures. The above remarks just indicate that some of them are improbable or impossible futures and should not be considered.
    This is already too long, so I won't go into other questions posed by Marlowe Johnson at this time.

  5. Roger,

    Nice dodges as ever. your post is obviously meant to suggest that people concerned about climate change are paranoid and delusional. I don't. Here are my anwsers FWIW.

    1. we'll probably track somewhere between a1f1 and b2 for the next couple of decades at least.

    2. net global impacts will be significant (bad) over the next century.

    3. > $1 trillion. as with most businesses, shares (where the companies are publicly traded) are not democratically distributed. But the basic point remains that fossil fuel companies and energy intensive industries will seek to maximize short term profits. In an effort to protect those profits, efforts will be made to delay any regulatory actions that jeopardize the value of current and future capital assets. This is rational behaviour on their part. good for them. not so much for society at large.

    4. Collectively these firms have far more money at their disposal than any other interest group that would seek to promote climate mitigation policies (i.e. carbon pricing).

    @Gerard Harbison
    Easy. Coal is king in West Virginia and it's not in Maine (i.e. less than 2% of electricity). Sometimes energy politics trumps conventional party dogma.

    Of course, the interests of the shareholders of fossil-dependent industries are not always in opposition to that of the electorate; with the kind of $$$'s that are at play how could they be? In some cases, interests align more closely (W Virginia) than in others (Maine).

    Second, I would note that 'influence' and 'power' isn't just about 'buying' elections, but I'll leave it to the resident political scientist to expand on that topic if he so chooses.

    Finally, I would hope that the distinction between 'powerful' and 'all-powerful' is fairly clear. Just because we don't see evidence of the latter doesn't mean that we should ignore evidence of the former.

  6. -4-Marlowe Johnson

    "Your post is obviously meant to suggest that people concerned about climate change are paranoid and delusional."

    Nope, not even close.

  7. Marlowe Johnson
    "Your post is obviously meant to suggest that people concerned about climate change are paranoid and delusional."

    I'm pretty sure Roger is concerned about climate change. It would be rather odd for the point of his post to be an admission that he is delusional.

    I might suggest Roger's point is rather nuanced.

  8. well would you care to enlighten me Roger?

    When your headline is 'paranoid style in climate politics' and you close with "The essay was originally written in reference to the American far-right, but obviously has more general applicability." what are you trying to say?

  9. @lucia

    Roger is nothing if not nuanced. I should probably amend the statement to read:

    "Your post is obviously meant to suggest that some/many/most people that are more concerned about climate change than you are paranoid and delusional."

    of course my track record in scrying Roger's thought processes isn't stellar so I could be totally off base again...

  10. Just an elementary course in Social Science allows anybody to understand that grand conspiracy theories are most usually unfounded. No grand right-wing oil-funded conspiracy of deniers, no grand left-wing cap-and-trade-funded conspiracy of warmists. Extreme ideological views do exist of course, but they make not the bulk of the controversies.
    On the other hand, Marlowe, Roger's views about climate change are well known, and explained in detail in his books as well as in this blogs. He has never denied climate change nor anything close. He has mostly dealt with policy analysis, in a most rational and measured way I should say. You may disagree with him on specific details or on everything, but first you have to understand what he is actually saying.

  11. -8-Marlowe Johnson

    Well, I am happy to give you a summary in a nutshell, but if you want to dive deeper, there are four links in the piece provided for those who want to learn a bit more.

    In a nutshell, the "paranoid style" (Hofstadter's phrase) refers to his view that "there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."

    That view is found in a very vocal (and somewhat influential) wing of the debate over climate change -- at places like ClimateProgress, Grist and others.

    Here is Joe Romm just today illustrating the "paranoid style":

    "The climate problem cannot be addressed as long as groups aggressively flacking false narratives are debunked. The Breakthrough Bunch in particular worked hard to kill the climate bill and has been pushing people even harder to stop talking about climate. So debunking them is critical if we are to have any chance."

    My post is simply pointing out that this particular style of attack has been long understood in the American political tradition.

    Those wanting to understand the climate debate would do well to understand the "paranoid style" -- including its deeper history in American political discourse, especially the track record of those adopting it in practice (hint: not so good).

    I hope that this clarifies a bit, but if not, just follow up, and perhaps dig a bit deeper including those links that I provided.


  12. thanks for clarifying Roger. I largely agree with you. Do you think that this is unique to the U.S., or is it just a matter of degree?

    curiously,none of your examples mention those on the right that use this style in climate politics (as Hector M alludes to above) :)

  13. -12-Marlowe Johnson

    "none of your examples mention those on the right"

    Follow the links:

    Glen Beck is a poster child for the "paranoid style".


  14. re: Marlowe Post number 5

    " $1 trillion. as with most businesses, shares (where the companies are publicly traded) are not democratically distributed"

    This typifies the thought process of of the liberal elite. I think you have democracy and communism/socialism confused. In a democracy people have a choice to make, in this case they can choose whether to buy/invest with their own money stock or not. It is only along the path to socialism which you are trying to move us to where we could come up with a term like "democratically distributed". What a repugnant thought.

  15. @mhummer

    thanks for displaying the 'paranoid style' Roger refers to. Nice to have an example right here in the comments!

  16. By the way, compare this (from Hofstadter)

    The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.

    With this (William F. Buckley, in 1962)...

    “How would you define the Birch fallacy?” Jay Hall asked.

    “The fallacy,” I said, “is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.”

    By the time Hofstadter had written his essay, Buckley had long since excoriated the John Birch Society in National Review, and persuaded Barry Goldwater to dissociate himself from it. We await a similar parting from the fringe in climate science.

  17. For a really interesting read on decision-making, uncertainty, and paranoid delusional certainty, I suggest Kathryn Schulz's "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." A fascinating romp through the history of decision making, and why "being wrong" is such an important part of being human. It is a must-read for anyone entrenched in any opinions about the state of the world, climate, etc.

  18. Marlowe, glad I could provide you what you think is an example. I suggest that you need some introspection about your own situation, because you seem to be focused on paranoia. Usually, paranoid people focus on others as being paranoid while they themselves are paranoid, and in no way am I paranoid about your being paranoid? If I keep going for another paragraph I might use the word paranoid more times than you have! :)

  19. Marlowe, your question 2 interests me:

    "Would you agree that the preponderance of evidence on future climate related impacts suggests that the world will be worse off from climate change than it would have been if more aggressive climate mitigation policies had been pursued?"

    Roger's answer is obviously correct, there is limited purpose in arguing counterfactuals.

    But if one tackles the question head-on, it needs refining somewhat. Would an acceptable paraphrase be "The world will be (noticeably) better off from climate change if the Kyoto targets were met."? Kyoto being clearly more aggressive than what has and seems likely to occur.

    To which I have two possible answers, the simpler being No, not noticeably, in warming terms, according to IPCC.

    The longer answer takes a look at the graph of US and China emissions (and I assume the EU vs India might look similar, I apologise I don't know how to embed the graphs), makes the wild assumption that China and India are ramping up their emissions because it makes the 1/3 of global population that live there better off, and then the 'losses' from climate resulting from their emissions have to be set against the 'gains' that those countries clearly see for their populations.

    Which takes us straight back, as always, to valuing winners and losers, and recognising that the gains and losses resulting from climate change are not the only gains and losses there are.

    Which renders the question, at best, simplistic?

  20. Received by email from a TimH:

    "Trying to portray Joe Romm's criticism as evidence of the "paranoid style" is an astonishing move. It reminds me of those people who hounded Mearsheimer and Walt for being anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. Romm is just talking about an +organised lobby group+ that +aims+ and is +designed+ to have some effect on the political process. Is it "paranoid" to believe lobbyists lobby - or idiotic to believe otherwise?

    Secondly, if we're talking about critiques of fossil fuel industry power (say), that has little to do with +individuals+ and everything to do with the political economy of powerful +institutions+.

    But as for individuals - is it "paranoid" to suggest that Rupert Murdoch (say) has too much unaccoutable power, which he uses to advance both his own commercial interests and ideological standpoint? No - it's simply fact, unless you believe you can somehow chuck the historical record in the bin. So this "paranoid style" diagnosis only takes you so far. It characterises elements of a particular mode of thought. It tells us nothing about whether some of those elements might in fact be accurate or not.

    p.s. What's the picture?"

  21. -20-Tim H

    Just a very quick reply to one part of your comment, you ask:

    "What's the picture?"

    It is a test to see if readers have actually read Hofstadter's piece;-)

  22. TimH:

    Is it "paranoid" to believe lobbyists lobby - or idiotic to believe otherwise?

    And the Center for American Progress is what kind of organization?

    I really like this quote from their website -
    The Center for American Progress is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization under section

    If the employer of 'America's most aggressive climate blogger is 'non-partisan' then I'm Mother Theresa.

    I know...claiming you are non-partisan is just some legal mumbo-jumbo required to maintain 'non profit' status.

    I know 'non profit' entities are made of sugar and spice and everything nice and 'for profit' entities are made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails.